What Baseball Means To Me
It is springtime again in America.
Yeah, tens of millions are digging out from mountains of snow to go to work, but the trucks carrying our summer obsession have safely reached their destinations in Florida and Arizona. Once unpacked, another baseball season will be upon us and it can never come too soon.
For me, 2015 will be the 42nd season I can remember. As we get closer and closer to April, the more excited I get. The sound of a bat making contact, the endless parade of beer commercials and the annual waste of ink telling us baseball is a dying sport will soon be here.
The colors and bubble gum did it for me. Watching to see whether I recognized anyone from the odd pack of Topps Cards a parent bought playing on television. An odd duck, I learned to read at eighteen months. When a batter’s name flashed on the television, I could read it. Not as violent as football or as dark as 1970’s NBA arenas were lit, the gentle, unrushed nature of the sport drew me in.
During the 1975 World Series, an uncle asked what my favorite team was. I boasted it was the Boston Red Sox. My cousins, all New York Yankees fans, laughed. I do not regret a minute of it.
A couple of years later, another uncle brought me down to Shea Stadium. I was five, recovering from the chicken pox. The New York Mets were beyond awful, the city was broke and I watched Lou Brock steal a base. The Mets won 4-1, not touching the seething anger by the fans for the recent trading of Tom Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds for the corpse of Pat Zachary’s pitching career and a warm bucket of spit.
The next summer, yet another uncle invited me over to get on the floor and listen to a Red Sox game on the radio. It was magic. The buzz around Fenway survived the crashes and static of a thunderstorm-filled summer’s night. Yeah, all right, the Sox blew a 14-game lead shortly thereafter and all my classmates loved the Yankees. Yeah, yeah, the Red Sox would pull a Charlie Brown well into my 30s, finding new ways to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.
Baseball is a cruel game. My first brush with death came not from a relative, but Thurman Munson’s plane crash in Ohio. I could never stand Munson, captain of the team I loathed more than anything, but I sobbed hearing the news. Gone, practicing touch-and-go landings. Then came the strike of 1981. A ten-year-old kid does not care about the squabbles between owners and players, just why his television is airing old movies and long commercials instead of games. Forget 1994, forget Aaron Boone, for 56 days the three saddest words in my life were “no game today.”
There is a timelessness to baseball that rarely exists elsewhere in sports. The game has been played since inception on a dirt diamond in the middle of a green field. No sport is as shackled or champions itself in history quite like baseball. When fans get together to discuss where Tom Brady ranks among the all-time great quarterbacks, what percentage compare him to Sammy Baugh or Otto Graham? In fact, what percentage of those fans would know who they are? Baseball fans compare Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera to Mickey Mantle. How many times have you heard someone complain today’s starting pitchers could not hold a candle to Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax?
Yet, the historical romance woven into the fabric of the game is why baseball remains so special.
What makes baseball’s experience special for me is unlike what it does for you. A father or grandfather might have taken you to freeze on a July night at Candlestick. Your grandmother might have had cable and loved listening night after night to Skip Caray. You delivered afternoon papers with a radio on the front of the bike with Jack Brickhouse pushing Ernie Banks and Ron Santo to drive home another Cubbie.
Those are the stories that make the game special. Saturday’s with Vin Scully, Dizzy Dean or Mel Allen. Watching the stars of your youth become legends then age. Another day in the boat with Dad not catching fish, but Ernie Harwell and Al Kaline.
I had the privilege late last week to talk with a new friend. At 15, he is at the high point of his sports journey. This is his golden age. Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander and Derek Jeter will fill his memories and hopefully a few books. When I asked my buddy what made him interested in the sport, you could hear the sparkle in his voice as he talked about following the Yankees in the 2007 American League Divisional Series. New York would lose to Cleveland that, in turn, blew a 3-1 lead in the ALCS to Boston. He was hooked.
For most, the long seasons and number of games that mean little and take too long to play prevents the casual fan from becoming a die-hard. Yet, that itself, the long road trips to the West Coast or the call-ups in September are some of the elements that make this game so special.
Baseball is that friend you meet on a park bench or a beach a few times a year. You are able instantly to restart a conversation you had last fall and continue. You get a good, solid couple of hours in and leave feeling fulfilled.
I am ready. Are you?